Originally created 03/04/98

Antiques dealer knew quality of knives was on cutting edge



To most people, including the company that made them, they were just a bunch of old French kitchen knives, black and stained and rough with irregular, dimpled blades. They were nothing like the shining stainless steel wonders we have today. In fact, they were next to junk.

It took Leonard Lee, a retired Canadian foreign service officer turned woodworking-cutlery seller, to recognize them for the treasure they were.

What Mr. Lee found in storage at an old Sabatier factory in Thiers, France, were cases of carbon steel knives, many hand-forged and with handles of exotic woods, dating almost to World War I.

He bought 60,000 and is selling them through his Lee Valley Tool Ltd. mail-order catalog. Dozens of styles of knives, made between 1920 and 1950, are available at prices ranging from $9 for a 2 3/4 -inch detail knife to $96 for a 50-year-old 14-inch chef's knife made with ebony or dyed wild pear handles.

"We have an agent in France who found these and, knowing my interest in anything antique, he called me," Mr. Lee says. "I flew over, looked at them and was blown away. I couldn't believe that for these people, these knives were a problem. I saw this as an opportunity to get on my hobby horse and preach."

Although knife fans still talk about how sharp carbon steel blades are and how well they hold an edge, almost no one makes them anymore. The reason is pretty simple: They turn black with use. That darkness is simply oxidation. It is cosmetic; it is not harmful. And, fans say, it is a small price to pay for the improved performance.

(Carbon steel knives should be dried immediately after washing -- they will rust -- and, like all fine knives, should not go in the dishwasher.)

In fact, some of the same things that might be considered cosmetic flaws are looked at by others as signs of quality. Those dimple marks on the blade, for example, show that the knife was hand-forged rather than machine-stamped; it's an old, time- and labor-consuming process that creates a fine crystalline structure in the steel.

The response to the knives, Mr. Lee says, has been rewarding.

"We've had chefs come in and buy $1,000 worth of knives," he says. "They thought these were long gone and would never be seen again."

Although the name Sabatier is well known in the world of fine cutlery, it has been tarnished somewhat. At one point seven firms of varying quality were licensed to use the Sabatier name. Now there are only three. Thiers-Issard, which brands its blades with four stars and an elephant, is still highly respected.

Some of these Thiers-Issard knives are among Mr. Lee's offerings. Others come from even further back. The oldest, from the company called L'Enfer, sport an imprint of a running devil on its blades, from "le creux de l'enfer" -- "the depths of hell" -- which is what the workers called the factory, situated at the base of a waterfall on the river that powered the Thiers industry.

Understandably, quantities of some knives are limited. Sales have been strong; these are, after all, antiques. But if you miss this boat, have no fear. Next year, Mr. Lee says, Sabatier will again begin making a complete line of brand-new carbon-steel knives.

For more information on the knives, call Lee Valley Tools Ltd. at (800) 871-8158, or write to P.O. Box 1780, Ogdensburg, NY 13669-0490.